Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. officially signed Monday a law to reform the tribe’s election code which included strong provisions to prevent dark money from coming into tribal elections.
“As a sovereign nation it is settled law that Cherokee Nation can govern the conduct of its own elections which go to the core of Cherokee democracy,” Chief Hoskin said during the signing. “Unlimited and unregulated cash pouring into our elections, as happened in the 2019 election, is destructive of our precious democracy and this law helps us fight it.”
Under the reforms, any “person or entity” involved in making independent expenditures is subject to criminal sanctions, including up to two years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine and civil penalties of up to $500,000.
In 2019, the Cherokee Nation Election Commission and Cherokee Nation courts found that Principal Chief candidate David Walkingstick had coordinated with a non-Cherokee group called “Cherokees for Change," an Oklahoma City-based special interest group with no ties to Cherokee Nation.
Cherokees for Change and Walkingstick, raised an undisclosed amount of money in support of Walkingstick’s campaign without any public disclosure by Walkingstick or “Cherokees for Change” and in violation of the tribe’s campaign donation disclosure laws.
As a result of his unlawful conduct with “Cherokees for Change,” Walkingstick was declared ineligible by the Cherokee Nation Election Commission and the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court after an investigation and public hearings.
“Cherokee law protected the Cherokee people from unregulated dark money to some extent in 2019,” Chief Hoskin said. “However, the law did not result in any accountability for the outside interests who dumped unregulated and undisclosed funds into our elections. This new law will send a message to outside interests that we are a sovereign nation, we have strong laws concerning campaign finance transparency, and that dark money is banned and candidates for office are not up for sale by the highest bidder.”
Deputy Chief Bryan Warner praised the measure as important to public interest.
“Strong candidates can and should raise funds, and in a highly regulated and transparent manner, to share their message with the voters. But, the voters should know where every penny of funds comes from. That is how we build trust and accountability," Deputy Chief Warner said. "This dark money ban is very much about empowering Cherokee citizens with full knowledge about campaign donations. It is building trust. Chief Hoskin and I certainly trust the Cherokee people and think they are entitled to know who funds political campaigns.”
The Council of the Cherokee Nation passed the election code reforms by the body’s Rules committee in April and was approved last week at the Council’s regular meeting by a vote of 15-0. Councilors Victoria Vazquez and Wes Nofire were absent.
Vazquez, a sponsor of the legislation who was absent for final passage due to attending a funeral, praised the measure.
“I was proud to sponsor this measure because I believe in open and fair elections and free speech,” said Vazquez. "It is impossible to have either if we allow unregulated and unlimited ‘dark money’ to be dumped into our elections. It is only possible to have fair elections and free speech if we protect our citizens and ensure that the people, not outside corporate interests, control our democracy.”
The new law is one of several election law reforms signed by Hoskin since 2019, including a measure that made absentee voting easier.
“Election reform is hard work, but it is important work.” said Councilman Mike Dobbins. "The Council has literally spent months examining our current law, gathering input and insight from the executive branch and the election commission. As long as we always put the interests of the voters and transparency foremost in our minds, the end result will be good law. This is good law.”
Council Speaker Mike Shambaugh said the new law sends a strong message to anyone thinking of putting “dark money” into the next Cherokee Nation election.
“The message we are sending today is that this is not 2019,” said Shambaugh. "You won’t get away with corruption. Yes, participate in the process, use your right to speak out, use your right to donate. But, if you do so in a Cherokee election, you must follow Cherokee law and lay everything out for Cherokee citizens to see. This is an exercise of sovereignty.”
Chief Hoskin signed the legislation on Monday evening in Warner as part of a Cherokee community gathering.